Towards the end of the once notorious, now celebrated British film by Michael Powell, Peeping Tom, Helen, the aspiring children’s writer and librarian, who develops an infatuation for her landlord, Mark, visits his dark room and stumbles upon the dark secret he has been harbouring. Then Mark appears and she confronts him: “Tell me mark, it’s just a film, it’s not real.” But Mark moves away from her, avoiding to look at her. “Look at me, Mark,” she says. “I cannot if you are frightened,” Mark says in a tone of such desperation that it will break your heart. And then, you forgive Mark for the heinous crime, as he decides to kill himself than to harm perhaps the only person he had come to like.
I wasn’t really keep on seeing the film, as all reviews I had read described the film as a study of voyeurism; you go to film for a story, not for a study. It expected the film to be gruesome, cold, dispassionate, especially when you hear that the film was really reviled when it was released in 1960. Now that I have seen the film, I can report that it’s a wonderful film, a masterpiece, no less, and very, very satisfying viewing, solely because the film humanises its criminal protagonist without being melodramatic and cheesy. It’s so heartbreakingly real.
Mark was experimented upon when he was child by his biologist father who wanted to study the responses of fear in humans. “In my childhood, I did not have a moment of privacy,” Mark tells Helen; he was always followed by a camera. Then his father gave him a camera, and now, the only way he can communicate is through the camera.
The film does not really explain why he started killed those women. Perhaps he chose the women because they were the easy victims, and perhaps he needed to do it sublimate his own trauma. He has a unique weapon. One of the legs of his camera tripod has a knife and with it he attacks his victims while recording their reactions of morbid fear at the time of their death.
Otherwise, Mark is a shy young man, that’s the reason Helen gets attracted to him in the first place. But he has been damaged by his father, and there’s no hope. As Mark gets close to Helen, he sees a glimmer of hope for himself and even tries to contact a psychiatrist to seek help, but it was already too late.
American filmmaker Martin Scorsese helped restore the glory of the film after it was penned by everyone on its release, so much so that it almost destroyed the career of one of the greatest filmmakers Britain has ever produced (The Red Shoes, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp and the hauntingly beautiful Black Narcissus). Scorsese famously said this film and Fellini’s eight and a half effectively say everything that there is to say about filmmaking as an art and its true nature.